By Katie Teal, University of North Georgia
Have you ever had an experience where you had no choice but to answer God’s call? I don’t mean just acknowledging God’s voice or presence in your life but actually putting God’s will into action in your day to day life. I had one of these experiences at Lift Every Voice. LEV is a three year initiative on dismantling racism that was started in the Diocese of North Carolina in 2015. I had the great privilege of participating in the final program this summer which was aimed at training the participants to be leaders in dismantling racism in their own communities. The participants came from Episcopal Dioceses across the US, South Africa and Botswana. I entered the Haw River Retreat Center, where it was held, full of excitement and curiosity and I left filled with hope and some fear because I knew those four days in North Carolina were not just a chance to connect with people from different parts of the world; they were a call to action from God that I could not ignore.
Throughout the retreat I could feel God tugging at my heart and challenging me. As Christian’s we know that we are called to love our neighbors and that this love is supposed to have no limits. I thought this was an easy call to answer but during LEV I realized it’s not. God’s call to love is an active call. It’s requires more than just saying “I love my neighbor”; that is the easy part. God places no boundaries on love so when God says “Love thy neighbor” it means love thy neighbor near and far, red or blue, black or white, documented or undocumented, Christian or Muslim, rich or poor, friend or stranger, alike or different. We live in a world of harsh polarizations and are placed into camps of us and them, which makes it so easy to be swept up in the waves of anger that crash across our communities, but we share this one Island Earth; we are one people, made by one God.
One of the things we learned about during LEV is the spirit of Ubuntu. In essence, it means “I am because we are.” It is this beautiful way of life that recognizes how our humanity is bound up together and that my value in life is increased by seeing the value in the life of my neighbor. It is so much easier to see God in the neighbor who shares the same political views, or looks like you or has some similarity to you but we are all made in God’s image; no exceptions. As we talked about Ubuntu and our connectedness through God, I began to wonder how often I failed to recognize God in my neighbor.
Growing up in the south, particular in small towns, I have been exposed to the undercurrent of racism that plagues this culture. Racism is not always the blatant hatred we see in news stories or hear about from the Civil Rights period. It is, often times, subtle and so engrained in the everyday interactions that it goes unnoticed or has been accepted as a way of life that will never change. I wasn’t aware of these subtleties in my life until I became involved with programs like Kids4Peace and Lift Every Voice. There was a time in my life where someone wearing a hijab made me nervous. I didn’t know why. I didn’t know anything about Islam but the TV told me Muslims were the bad guys. Then, my family became involved with Kids4Peace and I got to know some of my Muslim neighbors. I listened to their stories and saw God in their faces. There was a time when I judged a fellow student’s capabilities based of her skin color. I didn’t realize that was what I was doing at the time, but people of color were not in the gifted and AP classes at my high school and it wasn’t until a college education class that I realized how much this impacted my judgements of fellow students. It is not easy to admit this. No one wants to admit to being racist at any point in life, whether it was in thought or action, because we all know it is wrong. But I have to admit this. I have to acknowledge the moments in my life when I let race determine how I thought about a person or treated someone. Reconciliation begins with honesty and it is not a onetime action. Reconciliation is a way of life. It is recognizing our need for one another and being able to lay down that shame. It is acknowledging the past and the hatred that continues to divide us but refusing to let it shape our future. It is a continual offering of peace and constant effort to see God, even in those who refuse to do the same.
Desmond Tutu said “we are made different to know our need of one another” and Lift Every Voice brought this quote to life for me. We were all of different ages, from different parts of the world and cultural backgrounds but we came together to learn. Our differences were not what divided us but what brought us together and made it such a beautiful time. God was present in the different accents and languages, the songs from each country and the dances they inspired, and in the heart and soul of each person. I am no longer in the safe bubble LEV created and it is terrifying to think of the work ahead of me but God called and I answered. So as I, and the other LEV participants, go back into our towns and communities I offer my prayers that we may all become vessels of God’s love. That we will recognize God in our neighbor and remember to listen to hear, not to respond. That we enter the world with patience and courage as we face those who use our differences to create barriers. That we may be instruments of peace and always know in our hearts that I am, because we are, because God is.